Daley Thompson reigned supreme in decathlon for nine years, not losing a single event between 1979 and 1987. He dominated the international arena, defeating all comers on his way to two Olympic golds and four world records. Fighting off a relentless pack of high-class athletes for almost a decade without wilting required a ferocious dedication to training and a neverending supply of motivation. The secret, says Thompson, was simple. “Make it fun.”
Like a stick of Brighton rock, ‘fun’ is a mantra Thompson has sought to imbue right through his first gym venture – Daley Fitness in Putney, south-west London. From the bubbly staff welcome, through to the various zany fitness games created throughout the facility, Thompson was adamant that fun should be a central tenet of all experiences at Daley Fitness.
“There are a lot of people out there in gyms working really hard, but they don’t seem to be having a good time while they’re doing it,” he says.
“I think you can work hard and have a bit of fun as well, which in turn keeps you motivated. That’s the difference in our approach.”
So how does that translate from the track into a gym setting?
“You surround yourself with good people – people you like – and it’s easier to go training every day. Ninety per cent of making it fun is the attitude of the people here and the trainers. We try to get really good staff, because they’re the representatives of the business and if they’re good, fun people, then hopefully the way they teach is going to be fun too.”
Some may see it as naive to say that just making fitness fun is the key to helping members achieve their goals, but in an age when operators are spending millions on scientific investigations to unlock the secret of motivation, the concept offers a refreshing simplicity. And it’s certainly an easier marketing message to convey to consumers.
Thompson’s first foray into health clubs has seen him partner with long-time friend and former Great Britain athlete Gavin Sunshine, who is CEO of the business. The pair have transformed a former bed store from a dilapidated nightmare into their dream workout facility, where cutting-edge fitness equipment is combined with an “old-school approach to training”.
Sunshine – who as well as having run a Gold’s Gym franchise was previously a star on TV’s Gladiators – is an effervescent bundle of energy who positively bounces around the club as he leads me on a tour.
On entering Daley Fitness, you feel as though you’re entering a chic Scandinavian coffee shop – suggesting the influence of general manager Steve Gutteridge, who away from athletics also worked in the nightclub industry. The 5m-high glass wall panels and light wood flooring provide an unimposing shell which is filled with scattered seating and a central island containing staff, coffee machines and a Nutribullet bar.
To the right of the entrance room sits a cycling studio, where the glass can be frosted at the flick of a switch should members want privacy for their workout. There are also two bikes in the spot where you would expect to find the instructor; one is set out for ‘special guests’ from the world of athletics, who I’m told will pop in from time to time.
Virtually everywhere you look there are screens displaying Myzone scores – each member receives a belt when they join – while the basement level gym floor features Star Trac strength and CV equipment, Oartech Sliders, as well as Origin benches, racks and free weights. There are also open pods for PT sessions, a physio room featuring InBody composition analysis equipment and Daley Fitness-branded Hit Machines, which are later the cause of my heart rate hitting 100 per cent on the Myzone monitor for a solid six minutes.
Sunshine emphasises the fact that there has been “no expense spared” in the club fit-out – which is evident in details like the Italian marble-walled showers and GHD-supplied grooming stations – but it’s the functional studio where Daley Fitness really comes into its own.
Quite literally ‘old school’, the studio has been designed to replicate the gym hall from Thompson’s school. Wall bars, leather medicine balls, climbing ropes, rings and a good old-fashioned vaulting horse pay homage to a classic PE lesson, while modern updates arrive in the form of a Queenax Rig, 20 TRX stations and a Star Trac BoxMaster.
There are also 100 classes a week held across the studio and cycling room, with a wide range of workouts including ‘Daley & Gavin’s Old Meets New’.
“A fundamental that we’re trying to push is that we’re not following fads and that kind of stuff,” says Thompson. “There are lots of great training regimes out there, and lots of bad ones too. I started off doing all my fitness at school in a little space just like our studio, where you jump over things and pull yourself up things, and I just think it’s about sweating and having a good time and
not over-complicating things.
“It’s not a bad thing, but so many people want flashing lights and discos and all that. There are a lot of people out there doing that, but there aren’t many people doing it like this. I think we’re offering that point of difference. We’re putting the fun back into fitness.”
There’s certainly plenty of fun to be had at Daley Fitness, but the premium kit and top-class trainers mean the jolly japes come at a price. Membership costs £1,080 for a one-year contract, and there’s also a £200 joining fee – for which members receive their Myzone belt, a selection of gifts and three PT sessions.
At a time when most high-end offerings (albeit often boutique studios) are favouring a ‘pay as you play’ model, it’s interesting to see Daley Fitness choosing the old school membership model. For Sunshine, it’s a case of valuing the product and laying the groundwork for a longer-term relationship with members.
“The reason ours is a contract is that you’re buying into a luxury product which is expensive,” says Sunshine. “I want people to commit: if you’re committing to us, we’re committing everything to you. I’m not interested in you getting fit for one month. I’m interested in you being able to chase your grandkids around the garden in 30 years’ time.”
As with most gyms, bringing on board members for the long haul will be key to the success of Daley Fitness. When we meet on a sweltering day in early July, the club has been open for just over a month. There are 300 members so far and the business aims to attract 1,500 by the end of year one – a feat Sunshine feels is easily achievable given the club’s location in the wealthy London suburb of Putney.
“It took us two years to find the right site, but Putney is wonderful,” he says. “It’s an ABC1 area, and these people are cash rich and time sensitive. For your first studio, it’s got to be in an area where people are receptive to what you’re doing. I don’t know if every site will look like this, but we are looking for good growth and we’re working with a backer that likes us. As long as we maintain that blueprint, each site will warrant the opening of the next one.”
The backer in question is London-based MetroBank which, together with Thompson and Sunshine, makes up the triad of investors in Daley Fitness.
As luck would have it, Adrian Carey – who handles commercial banking at MetroBank – has popped down from the City for a first glimpse of the club in action. So I ask him, what made Daley Fitness an attractive investment proposition?
“First off, we look at the financial aspects of the business plan,” says Carey. “They might just be a set of numbers on a piece of paper but that, coupled with 10 years of dealing with Gavin and having seen him deliver those numbers on a regular basis [in a previous gym venture], means there’s a lot of trust capital there.
“The non-financial aspect is Gavin and an Olympic legend in Daley Thompson – it’s an opportunity for us to get involved with an exciting business which will hopefully grow and develop across multiple sites. This isn’t a case of wanting to jump into bed with a celebrity gym – we’re not that shallow. This is about the proposition ticking the boxes in terms of financial and non-financial aspects.”
The plan to develop multiple sites will see, at least in the mid-term, Daley Fitness seek to inhabit similarly wealthy areas of London. If Putney becomes a proven success, the team plans to open a further three sites; ABC1 areas such as Battersea, Bank and Kensington are touted as possible locations. Beyond that, says Sunshine, there’s no limit to their ambitions.
“If we can make five sites work, we can get up to 50 sites in another three or four years. If I get two more sites in the next six months, as I’m hoping, there will be five sites by the end of 2018 and then we’ll go for big growth. The difficult part will be maintaining this feeling of intimacy.
“There’s a risk of having too much middle management and losing control of what you were at the outset. We want to be the biggest small gym in the world.”
Creating a community
It’s a similar concern for Thompson, who feels the biggest challenge to growth will be finding the right staff to retain the sense of community they’ve sought to create at the inaugural Daley Fitness site. To that end, he talks about the possibility of setting up a Daley Fitness personal trainer qualification. The idea, he says, is in its infancy, but would broadly follow the curriculum of respected industry courses, but with the business’ own influences and ethos incorporated as well.
“I think staffing will be the biggest challenge moving forward – it’s tough finding good staff,” says Thompson. “We just look for simple things like people who look you in the eye, people who shake your hand and smile a lot – because most of the information is given off from how much you’re smiling at people. It all goes back to being friendly and providing a fun environment.”
Having seen off all comers on the track, time will tell whether Thompson can go the distance in the competitive gym market. But one thing’s for sure: he certainly plans to have fun along the way.